Plastic land, part 1

The first hint that I was getting close to Freeport was the steam. Big billowing clouds rose into the cold, grey skies above Highway 288 south from Houston.

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Then I came over a rise and got a glimpse of it — a vast chemical complex, the largest in North America — less individual facilities than entire landscapes, pipes and towers and stacks smoking and steaming and shooting columns of flame into the sky. This is the land where fossil fuels turn into plastic.

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I arrived in the middle of an ice storm — a rare event in this Gulf Coast town, where the average annual temperature is 70°.

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Houston had been a tangled mess of accidents and closed roads, the highway south largely deserted. In Freeport, the weather seemed not to have registered. Cars and trucks flowed in and out of factory gates, and the plants hummed on, as they do, twenty-four hours a day, every day. They hummed, literally. A low roar overlaid by a high-pitched machine whine permeated the town.

I veered off the highway and found myself at a gate to Dow Chemical’s Oyster Creek Division.

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Aside from manufacturing plants, only two other buildings appeared on the main road past the plant. Eros, a Lovers Boutique and the Eagle’s lodge.

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In Freeport, 12,000 people live amidst bays, marshes and bayous at the mouth of the longest river in Texas. The Spanish, who showed up here in the 1500s, called it Los Brazos de Dios, Arms of God. Today it is just the Brazos, pronounced with a flat Texas a and a short o.

Chemical complexes curl around the town to the north and east. Dow arrived first and remains the largest, seven thousand acres of plants producing billions of pounds of chemicals and plastics every year—nearly half the company’s U.S. production. And Dow is expanding, building a chlorine plant, a new “world-scale” propylene plant and increasing capacity at an existing ethylene cracker. This is part of a larger renaissance in the chemical industry across the Gulf, fed by cheap natural gas fracked out of rock.

It was difficult in Freeport to just wander. The roads kept dead ending at factory gates or water. I took another side road and found myself on a narrow gravel drive on top of a levee, no place to turn around, surrounded by bayou. I decided to abandon wandering and head to the local historical museum ten miles north to orient myself.

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